Support, empower media at this critical time, say civil groups after govt’s ‘stern action’ warning

File picture shows commuters walking past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, March 28, 2018. — Reuters pic
File picture shows commuters walking past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, March 28, 2018. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, April 12 — Civil society organisations have spoken out against what they perceive as threats by the government and Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob to punish alleged misreports and misquotes by the media — in particular online portals — with punitive measures.

In a statement today, Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm) together with the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) pointed out that Putrajaya appears not to understand the distinction between “fake news”, misinformation and disinformation.

“We believe that the misunderstanding, made worse by Ismail’s apparent targeting of online media versus other platforms, could lead to misguided actions being taken and ultimately used to justify attacks on freedom of the media.

“Any action taken to undermine the independence of media constitutes a major threat to freedom of speech and expression.

“Since coming into power and increasingly so during the Covid-19 pandemic, the current Perikatan Nasional (PN) government’s attempts at silencing dissenting voices and undermining media freedom is signalling the downwards spiral of Malaysia into an inconceivable authoritarian and undemocratic regime,” the two NGOs said.

Endorsed by eight other NGOs including Aliran, Empower, Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (Gerak), Sisters in Islam (SIS) and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) the statement warned that the risk of the government’s continued overreaching and misconception of “fake news” could lead to further surveillance, invasion of privacy, censorship and punitive actions.

The joint statement pointed out that the media itself is highly critical in ensuring that the high volume of information flow during this pivotal moment is channelled in a factual, timely, reliable and verifiable manner.

It acknowledged that there were a few instances when journalists had allegedly misquoted or misreported a public official, but the cases were few and far between, and the outlets themselves had corrected the articles or published an official explanation.

“A disproportionate response by directing punitive actions against media institutions can be counterproductive as it could shut down flow of information and related public discourse that is crucial in dealing with public health issues.

“A holistic and balanced response would include having efficient and broad channels of information from the government and media, accessible and reliable means for the public to verify information and use of reporting facilities within social media applications for misinformation to be removed.

“The government can also support and empower the media in maintaining independence and a high standard of reporting, including by resourcing independent fact checking initiatives,” said the joint statement.

The joint statement added that the government cannot be the sole arbiter in deciding what is the truth and that the best way to counter misinformation or misquotes is via a transparent and independent self-regulatory body such as the proposed Media Council.

However, Geramm and CIJ also reminded their media colleagues to be fact based, ethical and responsible in their reporting seeing that the public has very high expectations on reports covering the Covid-19 pandemic and the extended movement control order (MCO).

“During this pandemic, media personnel are amongst the frontliners and face exacerbated risks of infection due to the nature of their jobs.

“It is the responsibility of the government to guarantee a safe and enabling environment for the media to function and carry out their critical role to publish freely; keep the public fully informed; and hold the state accountable.

“This is not the time to threaten the media!” warned the statement.